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  November 19, 2001

AIDS Epidemic a Human Rights Crisis

The global HIV/AIDS epidemic is much more than a public health calamity. It is also a human rights crisis that is both a product of, and worsened by, pervasive violations of the human rights of those least able to enjoy their rights: the poorest, the weakest, the least educated, and the most stigmatized.

That is the conclusion of Joanne Csete, director of the HIV/AIDS and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch in New York City, who gave a lecture titled "The HIV/AIDS Crisis, Does a Human Rights Approach Work?" at Konover Auditorium November 8.

In many countries, Csete said, people with AIDS or those suspected of being HIV-positive are routinely incarcerated and widely discriminated against.

"At this stage of the global AIDS epidemic, 9,000 people a day die and something like 16,000 a day are infected," Csete said. "The difference between these figures is some indication to us of how bad this problem is going to continue to be.

"The 9,000 who die everyday of AIDS, of course, die one by one and not spectacularly," she added. "There is no three minutes of silence for them. Many of them are not even in a position to say what they're dying of."

Csete said the human rights violations suffered by persons with HIV or AIDS include: discrimination that prevents women and girls from protecting themselves from sexual assault or unprotected sex; the stigmatization of anyone who is HIV-positive, which discourages them from being tested for the HIV virus; and the denial of available treatment for the disease or infections associated with it.

The second-class status of women in economic, social and civic life has fueled the epidemic in much of the world, she said. The human rights dimension of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is also manifested in the abusive treatment of gay men, sex workers, homeless children, prisoners and others on the margins of society.

"Understanding human rights violations as they relate to HIV/AIDS should be a central part of our thinking about how it is that we combat this unprecedented global crisis," said Csete.

The most widespread human rights violation connected with the HIV/AIDS crisis is denial of the right to information about the virus, she asserted. This is having its most tragic impact in sub-Saharan Africa, where 3.8 million people were infected and 2.4 million died from AIDS in 2000 alone.

It is borne out in horrific statistics on child rape that, Csete said, are most likely under-reported. She cited statistics suggesting that more than half of the girls under 16 in Zimbabwe and 40 percent of those between 6 and 12 have been raped. She said she believes one reason for such grim statistics may be that men are seeking sex with girls, because "the younger a girl is, the more likely she is to be HIV-negative."

Further complicating the human rights picture for people with HIV or AIDS is the introduction of laws making it a crime to knowingly transmit the disease, said Csete. Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi, for example, has threatened to hang anyone who knowingly transmits HIV or AIDS, she said. Yet in Kenya, 90 percent of those infected don't know they have HIV.

Csete said the development of international guidelines for the proper treatment of persons with HIV or AIDS is a start towards changing how countries treat their infected citizens: "No country has put a dent in its HIV/AIDS population without respecting the rights of those infected."

Gary Frank

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